Tuesday, March 5, 2013

"If Only..." -- a sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent

A sermon preached by the Very Rev. Mike Kinman at Christ Church Cathedral  on Sunday,March 3, 2013

Then the LORD said, "I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.

If only…

There is nothing in the universe that holds us back, nothing that enslaves us, nothing that keeps us from grasping the new thing that God is offering more than sentences that begin with those two words.

If only…

“If only” is the tip of the sword. What comes next is what cuts us to the heart.

If only I could control my drinking.
If only I could find a better job or any job.
If only I could find a place to live.
If only her surgery had gotten all of the cancer.
If only I could figure out how to talk to my children.
If only my children would talk to me.
If only I had someone, anyone who wanted to be with me.
If only…
If only…
If only…

What is your “if only?” What is that thing in your life that is keeping you from grasping something new because it is grasping onto you? Think about it for a moment. What is your “if only?”

And its not only individuals who have “if onlys.” Communities have them, too. We have them as a Cathedral community … and they hold us prisoner as well.

“If only we could get more income and stop being in deficit.”

“If only we could hire a staff person for children and youth.”

And it’s doesn’t stop there. We have “if onlys” as a city and as a nation:

“If only we could fix our schools.”

“If only we could get everybody health care.”

“If only Congress and the administration could get their act together.”

To paraphrase Rodney King, “If only we could just get along.”

Our “if onlys” are not just litanies of excuses … though sometimes they can be. Our “if onlys” are windows through which we see the deepest brokenness in our lives. How we finish those “if only” sentences reveal where we are in most need of healing, where we are in most need of liberation, where we most need God to break into our lives and do a new thing.

If only.

The first Sunday of Lent, we heard God’s promise to the people in the desert, and we talked about how this year, we are getting out of the desert and getting up on the mountaintop to catch a glimpse of the new thing that God is doing and is inviting us into right here, right now.

Last Sunday, we heard the story of the call of Abraham and talked about God’s new thing for us being a puzzle that we don’t have the boxtop for … but one that is much bigger and more glorious than we can imagine. Abram had his own “if only” … “If only I had a son” … and yet he couldn’t believe it when God said he would not only have one son but descendants that numbered as the stars. When we think small and despair, God dreams big and says “that’s what I’m talking about.”

And this Sunday finds us still on the mountaintop. And we’re straining to see what that finished puzzle looks like. But we realize that in order to grasp God’s new thing, in order to get to this promised land, we have to be freed from the old things, we have to leave the old land behind.

The new thing God is doing is about freedom. The new thing God is doing is freeing us from our “if onlys.”

In this morning’s reading from Exodus, we’re back way before where we were two weeks ago. The Exodus hasn’t happened yet. The people of Israel are still in slavery in Egypt and they are saying “if only we could be free. If only those promises God made to our father Abraham could be true. If only God would remember us.”

And God appears to Moses in a burning bush and says, “Moses, Moses!” And Moses says, “Here I am.” And God says, “Take your shoes off. The place you are standing on is holy ground.” Because God is about to have a real, honest conversation with Moses, a conversation about the “if onlys,” a conversation about the real stuff that’s going on in the lives of the people. And wherever the honest reality of our lives meets the presence of God, that’s where holiness happens.

And then God lets Moses know that God has been keeping track of what’s happening to the people. God says, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry.”

God says, “I have seen them. I have heard them.” That’s good news by itself for the people. God is at least aware that they have been suffering in slavery for generations. Nice to know. Thanks for checking in, God.

But then God says something amazing. God says “indeed, I know their sufferings.” That word “know,” is one of the most powerful words in scripture. It’s the Hebrew word “yada” … only when God says “yada, yada, yada” here, it really means something. Yada means to know intimately. You know what I’m talking about, like “Adam knew Eve.” (wink, wink, nudge, nudge, know what I mean?) That kind of know. In “the biblical sense.” God knows the sufferings of the people … intimately, physically, feeling them as intensely as they do. God has not just been observing the people’s sufferings from afar. God knows their sufferings.

God says “Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

This is the Word of God for us this morning. In the midst of all the “if onlys” that hold us hostage, God comes to us in this holy space, this holy space where we bring the unvarnished, warts-and-all reality of our life into God’s presence. God comes to us and says not just I have seen your sufferings. Not just I have heard your cries. God says “Yada. Yada. Yada.” I know your pain. I feel your pain. Your “if onlys” are my “if onlys”

And I am about to do a new thing. I am about to deliver you from them.

God’s response to knowing our pain, to hearing our cry … is to set us free. God’s dream is to liberate us. To break us out of the “old things” that imprison us and deliver us to a “new thing.” To break the iron grasp of “if only” in our lives, in the life of this Cathedral, this city, this nation, this world.

But God does not do this alone. God calls on Moses to be God’s partner. God says, Moses, you will go where I have been and indeed am right now. You will go into the heart of the people’s suffering. You will fearlessly name the suffering. You will say that I have sent you to them in the midst of the suffering. You will proclaim that I am more powerful than the suffering. You will lead them out of their suffering.

And that is God’s Word to us today, too. This new thing of liberation. This new thing of freedom from our “if onlys.” God does not do this alone. We will be God’s partners in it. God doesn’t do TO us. God does WITH us. Like Moses, we are God’s partners in liberation … bringing ourselves and the people out there who don’t even know it yet to a new life of freedom.

And so this week from our vantage point on the mountaintop, we hear the story of the call of Moses and we realize that the new thing God is doing is about freedom. And because of that, we realize that we can’t look forward to the new thing God is doing until we look back and look around at what it is we need to be liberated from.

This week, we hear God’s call to Moses and we realize those words are for us.

That every time we cry “If only,” God not only sees us cry and hears us cry, but God intimately knows the pain of those if onlys.

That for ourselves and for the world, God is calling us to fearlessly name the suffering. To go with God into the heart of the suffering. To proclaim with one voice that God is more powerful than the suffering. And with God to lead the people and be led ourselves out of the suffering.

And like Moses and like Abram before him, we struggle with all of this.

We struggle with the ground we stand on being holy, with God’s presence actually touching our own.

We struggle with believing that God really knows our pain.

We struggle with the possibility of liberation.

We struggle with God wanting to partner with us.

We struggle with our own worthiness

We struggle with what authority we have.

We struggle with “what if people challenge us?”

And because we struggle, the first thing we do is remember that like Moses, we do not do this alone. We bring our “if onlys’

Like Moses, our answering this call will not be easy. But we will not do it alone. God will be with us. And if we trust God, we will be given power over the “if onlys” in our lives that we can scarcely imagine today. If we trust God, we will be given power to free not just ourselves but the world from the “if onlys” that bind us and that keep us from getting to the promised land.

What is your “if only?”
What is our “if only?”
What is the “if only” that is echoing from the deepest valleys and most desolate streets out there?
What is God’s song of freedom we are being given to sing?

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